Warning: this article contains plot spoilers.
At one point in Journal a character discusses writing a comic book. He’s got the idea in his head, he says, but just is never happy when its down on paper and never wants anyone to see his work until it is in a state he deems satisfactory. He’s been working on it for so long, he says. He’s got the idea in his head, but has no idea how to translate it to paper and has no idea what either the story or the characters will be like. Later on, the character says he’s given up caring about the end product and is just doing it. He doesn’t care if the end result is bad or if nobody likes it (including himself), he’s just gonna buck up and do it.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, let me explain. In the credits of this game, it is stated that Journal has been in development in one form or another for ten years, and only now has it seen the light of day. The credits also state that this game is dedicated to the memory of the father of Richard Perrin. The message is clear: Journal’s designer, programmer and co-writer Richard Perrin (best known for his wonderful solo effort Kairo) has had this concept in his head for years, but has never been able to turn it into a game he’s proud of. But with the death of his father, Perrin finally had a motivation to complete the game. He just wanted to translate his raw emotions, his raw grief and his raw sorrow into lines of code, into gameplay, no matter what the end result ultimately turned out to be. As Perrin himself said in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:
“Finishing Kairo at the time when all that was happening was very difficult for me. It’s a game about hope, and I didn’t have much. Kairo shipped the week after my father died. It was the worst period of my life. There was nothing good. Kairo was a situation where it came out and people were like, ‘Oh, you must be so relieved to have it finished!’ But no. It was just numb. This horrible feeling. I had a pretty rough time, and rather than writing angsty poetry or Livejournal posts, I’m trying to focus that into Journal. Trying to share that with an audience.”
Journal has the sense of a game that was made in a hurry, and that might sound like a criticism but in many ways it really isn’t. Perrin’s father died in April 2013, and Journal was released on the 17th of February 2014, and that says it all. Like the character in the game (named Trevor) says, he wanted to finish it as soon as possible just so people can experience it and share their thoughts about it. Polish and perfection took a back seat in favour of just getting it done, just getting those ideas down on paper, just sharing it with an audience. That was Perrin’s ultimate goal. With that one dialogue exchange in Journal that could easily be ignored and has no bearing on the plot’s progression, Perrin opens his heart to the audience, bares his feelings, reveals the truth, if you like. He admits that the game isn’t perfect, but do we ever write eulogies to be entertaining and palatable?
There are problems, some of them easily ignored, some of them not so much. An example of this is in some of the writing, in particular the exchanges between high schoolers. To bring up RPS again, in their review of Journal they compare these exchanges to the Mr Show sketch “No Adults Allowed”. For those who aren’t aware of the contents of that sketch, here’s the rundown: three adults dress up as kids for a “kids only” TV show and talk about how much they “love those damn video games” and think that homework sucks but they’ll realise its importance later on in life. And while this comparison is a little too cruel for my taste, I still most grudgingly admit that the reviewer has a point. Perrin gave this reason as to why he made the game’s protagonist a young girl rather than someone like him:
“The themes I’m trying to deal with – issues of loss and alienation of friends – are universal in life. But the thing about channeling it through a young girl is it allows me to do this progression of dealing with simple mundane things and then scaling upward into increasingly difficult things to deal with. Childhood innocence makes these issues even harder. You can sympathize, too. Seeing anyone struggling is tough, but seeing a child struggling is even harder.”
And that’s an understandable reason for his choice, and I applaud him for it. But at the same time there are downsides. Perrin and his co-writer Melissa Royall sadly don’t have much of a grasp of how teenagers act and talk in high school situations (and this is coming from a high schooler here), and this is made even worse by the fact that the game’s main character complains at one point how adults seem to forget what being a child was like once they grow up. It seems that although they were both once high schoolers, Perrin and Royall don’t really know how to write their conversations. The high school characters (with the exception of the excellently handled Trevor, the aforementioned comic book writer) feel like caricatures rather than nuanced people, but the writers do try to invite nuance. One character is at the start the main character’s best friend and the game ends with the friendship being terminated, but this character ends up seeming unlikeable and cruel. They are angry at the main character because the main character blamed them for property damage, but the reason why the main character had been in denial has been made clear to her friend from the start. And yet, she ends the friendship. It just doesn’t seem like how a real person would act in that situation.
I may be coming across as overly cruel, and believe me, that is not and never was my intention. I don’t hold any of these flaws against the Locked Door Puzzle team because ultimately I get the feeling the team are aware of these flaws. As I said before, this game is a cry for help, an exercise in channeling one’s grief into an interactive experience. It’s not perfectly handled, it’s not polished and it’s not free of bugs and/or glitches in both sound and in movement. And yet, I can forgive all that because ultimately Journal wasn’t made to be a polished, balanced experience. It was made as a goodbye to the director’s father.
I’ve experienced the crushing feeling of loss before, both through the death of a loved one and through other means. I’ve treated friends and family badly. I’ve been through denial. I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of. Maybe that’s why Journal registered with me. Although throughout my playthrough I noticed flaws, I almost stopped caring as I was in the moment.
It would be very easy for me just to end this post with a simple verdict and a mark out of ten, but that would completely undermine this game for what it is. I don’t think I’d be able to pin a numerical score on this game, because it’s just not that type of game. I don’t care if this game has a 59 score on Metacritic because in my opinion, the number doesn’t matter. Journal isn’t perfect, it is at times trite, and the gameplay isn’t streamlined. But that doesn’t matter. If you want a verdict, here it is:
Journal is a thought-provoking, heartstring-tugging exploration of grief and denial, made even more saddening by its connections to real-life events. Richard Perrin has made a game that really made me pause for thought about life and death. It’s not perfect, but it never could be. Should it be a video game? Should it have been about a young girl? Should the moral choice system be in place? Are the characters too simplistic to make an impact? Perhaps. But I ultimately don’t care that much. You might care. Opinions are subjective, after all. Journal was to me thought provoking, I could see past its flaws. Others might not, though. Regardless, Richard Perrin has finally got this game off his chest, and with it hopefully his sadness will go too. I look forward to whatever Locked Door Puzzle makes in the future, be it a more gameplay-focused experience like Kairo, or a more introspective story-driven experience like Journal.
Journal is available on Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/261680/
You can follow Charlie McIlwain on Twitter: @ComedicPerson
Have a lovely day!